Corporate Culture and Workplace Happiness at South by Southwest

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Mar 20, 2015

Engaged employees are the harbingers of workforce retention and happiness in the workplace, however numerous companies struggle with creating practices and protocols that result in enthusiastic personnel.

From haphazard questionnaires to ambiguous measurements, countless companies are striving to produce solutions that will boost morale and prevent great team members from leaving, but these companies are falling desperately short of their aspirations.

This begs the questions: Can happiness truly be measured? Can employee engagement be quantifiably tracked? Has the traditional employee engagement industry become obsolete?

What does the future look like?

There was a panel this week at SXSWi (the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas) titled Quantifying Workplace Happiness and Culture Fit, and the panel consisted of Josh Bersin, principal and founder at Bersin by Deloitte, Randy Goldberg, vice president of talent acquisition at Republic Services, Samar Birwadker, CEO at, and William Tincup, CEO at Keyinterval Research. These industry leaders had a lively discussion built around these pressing questions:

According to Bersin, culture is currently the No. 1 issue in the business world. Employee engagement has been reduced to an industry of annual surveys that often occur only once a year and the ineffectiveness of these measurements signals the obsolescence of conventional strategies.

For many teams, HR is broken. Change is needed for a better future and many in our industry agree.

But what does that future look like? And how can those who are apprehensive of change begin to take cautious steps toward it?

Birwadker believes in a move toward transparency. He says employers will say just about anything to get the right candidate onboard. Candidates decide to work for companies based not on how a company actually is but on how the company presented itself during the interview process.

Engagement starts with boardroom transparency

The steps leading up to employment do not represent what the person’s experience will be once they become an employee. This needs to change. There should be more openness during pre-employment conversations and the candor should continue into actual employment.

Goldberg explained that a large number of companies conduct strategic conversations in secretive meetings behind closed doors. Then subsequent meetings are scheduled in order to disseminate, to appropriate personnel, the decisions made in the closed meeting. He offered that some innovative teams have elected to bring much more people into the fold, by having much greater attendance at critical meetings, and these teams have been largely successful.

Bersin said when employees feel out of touch with their CEO they will be disengaged. Companies worldwide are beginning to post their boardroom minutes online and this transparency has been generally well received. People need to know who their leaders are, faults included. It was emphasized that to have imperfections is part of being human.

Beyond transparency, companies need to better understand the people calling the shots and the people reporting to them. Analytics must continue to become a main point of discussion rather than a side-note. Additionally, individuals must be held accountable for the influence they hold over the direction of the business.

For example, Tincup said when one leader on a panel of hiring managers feels a candidate is not a cultural fit, it helps to reference a written set of core values. Someone who is potentially not a cultural fit should be compared against the core values. Areas where the person does not align should be specifically noted. The process puts the dissenting hiring manager in a box and holds everyone involved accountable.

The SXSW panel insisted that further efforts be made to study personnel and understand workers.

Culture-focused organizations are still the exception

Tincup told attendees that reward and recognition programs should touch employees at an individual level, not in a cookie-cutter fashion. Education reimbursement might be the best way to show appreciation to one employee, but additional vacation time or the option to work from home might best suit another.

Bersin said companies must examine their top performers and analyze patterns regarding educational institutions and former employers. Recruiting strategies should be built on this data, because if a company can identify another company that is training the people they need they will find themselves ahead of the curve.

According to Birwadker, talent acquisition must move beyond hiring for skills and that forward thinking start-ups understand this. Tincup shared this sentiment and admitted that he hires based on three things: passion, intelligence, and ambition. Bersin added that companies that are putting culture first are the exception to the rule.

Were the ails of human resources and corporate culture solved in an hour-long SXSW session? Certainly not. However meaningful dialogue was initiated and it is clear a ground swell is occurring to initiate further advances in this industry. More measurements are being taken than ever before and the possibilities of what can be done with the compiled information are vast.

Bersin said: “The best measure of how your culture is working is whether people are staying or leaving.” For those companies who have an uncomfortable amount of personnel leaving, I hope this article offers some useful insight on retention and culture. For those companies able to retain their top performers, I hope this article provides some wisdom on how to maintain that successful retention.

One more thing: Be sure to mark your calendar for TLNT’s upcoming High Performance Workforce Summit, taking place in Atlanta, Georgia, on May 6-7, 2015. The conference will gather a roster of human capital experts from some of the best organizations in the world, including NASA, the American Bar Association, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Zoosk, and Schnitzer Steel.

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